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Essay: What fundamental strengths coincide with Machiavelli’s The Prince?

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Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, Peter Constantine, Great Britain, Vintage, 96.

Machiavelli’s The Prince is a concise treatise initially interpreted as a handbook to leaders about how to maintain or gain power in a region. The 26 Chapter book goes on to discuss: principalities, armies and military leaders, the expected characteristics of a Prince, and the contextual basis of Italy’s political situation at the time. The general thesis that is to be taken from this text are the moral adversities that sometimes may be needed to be overlooked to ensure the most effective leadership.

Machiavelli has universally been characterised as a deceitful, immoral and cunning philosopher following the initial publishing of The Prince. However, recent re-articulations have deduced that perhaps his philosophies were meant to be centralised around the best intentions of the public. With this new interpretation in mind, reviewing this book sheds a new light on leadership and could provide useful lessons to understanding the contemporary political world.

When the text was being written, Italy was in the process of intense political conflict with a number of surrounding states fighting to command key control of it. This conflict among the political aspects led to less honourable political practices such as blackmail and violence. Additionally, Machiavelli had been exiled from office, imprisoned and tortured in 1513 after being accused of complying with the Medici conspiracy (Penguin Random House, 2019). The text was initially thought to be intended as a job application to the Medici family, and a way to gaining favour back into Florence, due to the dedication to Lorenzo de ’Medici in the opening pages. But, in more recent times, The Prince has come to be viewed as a handbook to the public on the expectations of how a leader is to behave, dubbed “The book of republicans’ (Rousseau, 1913).

A key idea that is brought about, are the characteristics that a political leader should hold. Here, the metaphor of ‘the Fox and the Lion’ is proposed (64). Machiavelli also touches on the subject of how favourable a leader should be to their citizens, a contended subject, stating in an ideal world there should be an equal balance between love and fear of a Prince; as a Prince should be feared enough to be respected but at the same time should be loved in order to coerce the population (60). However, he also states that in the usual cases where his not always able to be achieved, and so his most prominent quote was brought forward of, it is ‘far safer to be feared than to be loved’ (61). Therefore, it can be said that Machiavelli brought forward a new idea that the quality of a prince is not dependent on how moral he is in himself, but how he is perceived by his population.

Taking the cynical view of politicians as being viewed to be cunning and deceptive, this uniquely honest account provides an alternative understanding into the actions of politicians. From this view, The Prince can be praised and agreed with as it provides an unconventional perspective to political analysis of phenomenon and the ways in which politicians will act. Additionally, this could also be usefully applied into understanding today’s politicians.

A fundamental term that is recycled throughout the text is that of ‘virtu’. By one interpretation when used combined with that of ‘fortuna,’ ‘virtu’ is that of way of controlling the uncontrollable, ‘fortuna’. Machiavelli approaches these terms by suggesting that fortune is a force that has control over half of our actions but leaves the other half ‘in order that our free will may prevail’, ‘virtu’ (90). It is explained how fortune will ‘unleash her forces’ only in places where a leader has not ‘taken […] precautions to resist her’ (90). However, if a prince is acting in a ‘impetuous’ way, as is suggested to be the best way to act by Machiavelli in his concluding statement (90-92), then how is a leader able to prepare with no thought into what needs to be prepared for?

Furthermore, Machiavelli goes on to state that the way in which individuals strive for success is entirely subjective, but this is highly dependent on ‘the nature of the times’. And so, if fortune, nature and the way in which the individual acts do not perfectly align, then the individual is destined to fail. But along with this, it is to be noted that an individual is not so flexible as to adapt themselves depending on the nature that is present at the time and so is only able to succeed given that all variable align (91).

This could however be critiqued as being used as a means of excusing when Machiavelli’s logics do not formulate as expected. As the initial intention of this text was to be as a handbook to a leader into how to gain and sustain power, when this is not enacted successfully, Machiavelli runs the risk of discrediting all of his other teachings. And so, this could be taken as some sort of protection clause in the case that leaders follow his steps in the text and are unsuccessful.

A theme that is present throughout Machiavelli’s treatise is that of deception. The thought surrounding this firmly contradicts the traditional view that the measure of a leader is dependent on their morality. Machiavelli instead suggests that it is about how moral he is perceived to be by his subjects. Additionally, in an ideal world, a Prince should be both feared and loved, but never feared so much that they are hated. By taking the new approach to The Prince, this particular section could certainly be viewed as a warning to the people. Here, Machiavelli is taking his experience to elude to the untrusting nature of politicians. Here the quote ‘as men are wicked and not prepared to keep their word to you, you have no need to keep your word to them’, should be recognised, a quote that lays out the self-interested idiosyncrasy that lies at the centre of Machiavelli’s ‘ideal’ leader (65). Furthermore, Machiavelli alludes to how cruelty can be used against a prince’s citizens is used as a form of manipulation.

To conclude, the fundamental strengths that coincide with Machiavelli’s The Prince are those of transparency. Machiavelli seemingly successfully provides a window into the scheming world of politics, a perspective that is still able to be applied in the contemporary world. This text does however find itself creating a clause of excuse, should the text be used in the initial intended way, in case the steps to success don’t create just that.

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